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Meeting COVID-19 challenges: Understanding dates on food labels before discarding

Posted at 12:42 PM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 15:59:01-04

Amid COVID-19, many people are stocking up on various items, including food.

Yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted after it reaches stores or homes. Frequently, this is due to consumers disposing of food because of “the date” that appears on it. However, the dates placed on food items differ significantly in meaning.

Labels such as “best if used by,” "sell by," "use by" and "freeze by" are all dates determined by food manufacturers. These labels are the manufacturer's best guess as to when there is a loss in food quality, and do not indicate a loss in food safety.

Rather, such labels indicate how long a food maker will warranty their product to still be at peak quality for enjoyment.

So, how do you know how long you can keep and consume various foods, depending upon how they are labeled? It can be confusing, but here is some general guidance:

- Once eggs are purchased, they should be refrigerated in their original carton and placed in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Storing eggs in the refrigerator door is not recommended due to the loss of coolness from the repeated opening of the door. Keeping eggs at refrigerator temperatures (below 40 F) will slow the progression of bacteria and inhibit them from penetrating the shell. Generally, eggs will be safe for three to five weeks after purchase at refrigerator temperatures. However, they will lose quality over time.

- Milk and cream are safe in the refrigerator (34 F to 40 F) for seven days after opening or the date on the container, yogurt for two weeks, and sour cream for up to three weeks.

- Soft cheeses (cottage cheese, ricotta or brie) are good for one week in the refrigerator. Hard cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan) can last up to six months refrigerated in an unopened package, and up to four weeks after opening. Processed cheese slices in the refrigerator last for two months.

- Packaged/Processed Meats (hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages) will last two weeks after purchase in the refrigerator unopened, and three to five days after opening. In the freezer, they will last one to two months.

- Canned/Boxed Goods should be stored in cool, dry places. Make sure there are no dents, swelling or rust, which can be signs of botulism. Home-canned foods should be used within one year. Dates on canned and packaged foods reflect how long they will last before starting to lose quality.

For more information on labeling and how to read expiration dates on products, visit https://www.fsis.usda.gov